Biochemist's work earns top honors

UC Davis plant biochemist Clark Lagarias, who investigates how plants perceive and respond to light, was elected Tuesday to the National Academy of Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors accorded to a scientist or engineer in the United States.

Lagarias is one of 72 new U.S. members and 15 new foreign associates. Overall, 13 new members were elected from the University of California, including seven from Berkeley, two from Santa Barbara, and one each from Davis, UCLA, Irvine and San Francisco.

Members are elected to the academy based on the originality and quality of their entire body of scientific research. With Lagarias' election, UC Davis academy members now number 18.

"Membership in the National Academy of Sciences is arguably the highest and most prestigious honor that the country gives to a researcher," said Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef. "This speaks to the quality of Clark's work and to the enormous pride that all of us at UC Davis can take in his accomplishment."

Lagarias, 47, has been a member of the UC Davis faculty since 1980. For two decades, he has studied how plants perceive light in their environment, focusing on a group of light-receptor proteins called phytochromes.

Lagarias said he learned of the honor in a 6 a.m. phone call from other academy members from UC Davis who participated in the election in Washington, D.C.

"I was sort of dazed, since I hadn't had coffee yet," he said.

Lagarias said it felt strange to be singled out for such recognition, and that the honor should be shared with his students and colleagues, especially his wife, Donna Lagarias, an adjunct assistant professor at UC Davis.

"Everybody deserves recognition," he said. "I don't know why me. I would prefer that such recognition went to a field or a group of scientists.

"I'm not a prolific publisher and I don't attend many meetings so I'm not a high-profile scientist," he said. "But I've been blessed with outstanding students and postdocs, and I really love my research project."

His colleagues planned to host a reception in his honor Wednesday in the Briggs Hall courtyard.

Lagarias is internationally known for his work in investigating the molecular and chemical bases for how plants perceive light - its intensity and quality, the length of the day, and whether they are close to other plants.

His findings hold potential applications for improving food production, for instance, in developing crops that could grow in colder, northern climates with shorter growing seasons or those that could produce greater yields of seed.

In recent years, his lab has modified phytochromes to make them fluoresce in a glowing yellow-orange hue, providing scientists with a new tool for observing the movements of important features within living cells.

Two years ago, Lagarias was appointed to the Paul K. and Ruth R. Stumpf Professorship in Plant Biochemistry, an endowed chair in the UC Davis Division of Biological Sciences. Lagarias said he counts Stumpf and Eric Conn, both UC Davis professors emeriti and National Academy of Science members, among his mentors.

Lagarias joined the UC Davis faculty in 1980 as an assistant professor in what was then the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. He was made full professor in the Section of Molecular and Cellular Biology in 1991.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he earned bachelor's degrees in botany and chemistry in 1975 and a doctorate in chemistry in 1979, all from UC Berkeley.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.

Those elected Tuesday bring the total number of active members to 1,874.

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